Nuts for Nutcracker

‘Tis the season for our city’s versions of this Christmas season dance classic

The last of the season's "Nutcrackers" pirouette across Tucson stages this weekend.

Ballet Tucson, the city's one professional company, deploys its expert dancers in its beloved classical version—now in its 21st year—at the Music Hall.

Dancing in the Streets AZ takes over the Temple of Music and Art to show off the talents of its southside kids, with the help of guest dancers and the Civic Orchestra of Tucson.

Ballet Tucson's production of the 1892 Petipa ballet is a sumptuous affair, with falling snow, richly colored Victorian costumes and elaborate sets and backdrops.

Jenna Johnson, Ballet Tucson's prima ballerina extrordinaire, will once again dance the demanding Sugar Plum Fairy. And she'll be partnered by longtime company member Benjamin Johnson as the Cavalier.

Other familiar faces include Deanna Doncsecz and Daniel Salvador. But these mainstays of the troupe will be joined by a host of new dancers.

"It's largely a brand-new company," says artistic director Mary Beth Cabana. "A lot of our dancers who were with us for seven or eight, 10 years left this year. They're having babies and moving on. The new dancers are really talented and there's a great energy in the studio. "The Nutcracker" looks new to us again."

Newcomer Megan Steffens, until recently with California's Company C Contemporary Ballet, will dance Sugar Plum on Saturday afternoon, and take on the challenging part of Snow Queen in other performances. And fellow newbie Mauricio Vergara, who came from Montgomery Ballet in Alabama, will partner her as Snow King.

Cabana's intricate choreography for the Snow Scene is a "hard thing to dance," she says. "But they're digging their teeth into it."

Local kids from the Ballet Arts studio join the adult pros and apprentices, bringing the number of dancers to 95 or 100, performing to recorded music. Four young teens alternate the plum role of Clara–Abigail Pye, Raven Blackstone, Grace Bonser and Emma VanPeenen.

"I'm really pleased with the talent level," Cabana says. "Each of the girls has a unique interpretation."

Dancing in the Streets AZ puts on its "Nutcracker Ballet," aka "El Cascanueces," for the eighth time.

"Our storyline is that the party takes place in the ambassador's home, so it's more a ballroom than a house," says co-director Soleste Lupu. "The guests at the pary are from all over the world."

The South Tucson studio was co-founded in 2008 by Lupu and her husband, Joseph Rodgers, a native Tucsonan who danced with Feld Ballet New York and other troupes. They've developed a rep for training neighborhood kids, and some 110 dancers from age 3 and on up perform "Cascanueces."

Longtime Tucson modern dancers Thom Lewis and Julia Miller take on the parts of the ambasador and his wife.

"They're a riot," Lupu says. "They're great dancers, too."

Two Phoenix dancers come down the pike to contribute. Aiden Schubert of Phoenix Ballet dances Sugar Plum for the first time with the troupe, and Mariano Albano, formerly with Louisville Ballet, reprises his Drosselmyer.

The Civic Orchestra plays the beloved Tchaikovsky score live, and local singers calling themselves the Ahhh Chorus step up to warble the "ah ahs" of the Snow Scene.

For the first time this year Dancing in the Streets will have professionally produced backdrops, one for the ballroom scene in Act One and another, "colorful with peppermints and other candy," for Act Two's Land of Sweets.